Hurry Back, Barry
The Giants’ plan for this season and even next was clear: Put enough good players around Bonds to make a run at the postseason, while Bonds was bringing out the fans to see him challenge Hank Aaron’s career home run record. The fact that the players were often old by athletic standards didn’t bother management. As I wrote in an earlier column (April 5), the Giants’ motto was, “The Future Is Now.”
Unfortunately, it now appears that “The Future Is Yesterday.”
When you have older players, they are always more susceptible to injury. Moises Alou, who will be 39 in July, is already injured, which shouldn’t be a great shock. He’s missed two whole years because of injury in his career and had three consecutive seasons, 2000-2002, in which he averaged only 131 games because of long stays on the DL.
Meanwhile, Ray Durham is always just one quick move away from the DL and you have two Giants who will reach 38 this month, Marquis Grissom and Omar Vizquel, who is only two years away from a season in which injuries limited him to 64 games.
IT ISN'T JUST injuries that are the concern, either. With Bonds out, weaknesses that could otherwise be overlooked are becoming more obvious.
Even on Opening Day, when their lineup was intact and the Giants beat the Dodgers, I was discussing with the AP’s Janie McCauley, sitting next to me in the press box, how Giants hitters would be adversely affected by the absence of Bonds.
One dominating hitter can make an enormous contribution, as I first observed in 1966. The year before, the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles had each finished fourth in their 10-team leagues. Then, the Reds traded Frank Robinson to the Orioles for pitcher Milt Pappas. In 1966, the Reds slipped to seventh and the Orioles won the American League pennant, with Robinson as the league MVP, and swept the Dodgers in the World Series.
As good as Robinson was – and he’s now in the Hall of Fame – Bonds is even more of an offensive force. Every time he’s in the lineup, opposing managers and pitchers concentrate on the most effective way of pitching him. Many times, as we’ve learned, that’s meant walking him intentionally, a strategy that actually backfired last season, though not many managers understood that. Because the Giants had so many baserunners, they finished second in scoring in the National League, only five runs behind St. Louis. Bonds himself scored 129 runs, only four behind leader Albert Pujols of the Cardinals.
There are other obvious advantages to having Bonds in the lineup. The hitter in front of Bonds gets a steady diet of fast balls because the pitcher doesn’t want to walk Bonds; Rich Aurilia had a career year batting No. 3, just ahead of Bonds, in 2001. Hitters in the No. 1 and 2 slots also get more fast balls, for the same reason. The hitter behind him has great RBI opportunities.
Beyond that, there’s a psychological advantage which is hard to quantify but which is nevertheless very important. Pitchers spend so much mental and emotional energy thinking about Bonds, they don’t concentrate as much as they should against other batters.
Now, managers and pitchers can plot normal strategy against the Giants lineup, and that presents a problem for the home team, even if Alou makes a speedy recovery from the DL. Even as a complementary hitter to Bonds, Alou was suspect. He’s only hit 30 or more home runs three times in his career, and the last two came with clubs who have home parks which yield many home runs – 30 for Houston in 2000 and 39 for the Cubs last season. PacBell Park is much more difficult for power hitters than either Minute Maid Park or Wrigley Field.
With both Bonds and Alou out, who’s going to step up? Pedro Feliz is probably the best power hitter left, but he seems to be more of a mid-20s home run hitter at best, and with more pressure on him now, he may not even produce that many.
Small ball? Durham and Vizquel at the top of the lineup run well, but nobody else in the lineup fits that mode.
THAT, IN TURN, puts more pressure on the Giants pitching staff, and the only starter who’s a sure thing is Jason Schmidt.
Kirk Rueter is Kirk Rueter, a six-inning pitcher who requires good run support and tight fielding behind him. Vizquel tightens the infield defense, which is good news for Rueter, but Grissom is not the centerfielder he once was, which means there will be many more balls dropping in the “Death Valley” section of right center.
Brett Tomko has the pitches to be a big winner but he’s been a head case throughout his career. He had a great second half last season, but he’s in his eighth season and has yet to prove he can do it for a whole season.
Noah Lowry came up at mid-season last year and really saved the rotation. I like this youngster’s poise and feel for the game. He really should be the No. 2 starter, instead of Rueter, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see manager Felipe Alou make that change after the All-Star break.
Jerome Williams has had setbacks because of his personal problems. I suspect he’ll have problems concentrating this season, and I can hardly blame him for that.
OVERALL, THERE are too many question marks about this rotation to think the starters can make up for the lack of offense.
Hurry back, Barry.
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